The Myth of Multitasking by Dr. Jim Taylor

10/21/2011 1:18:16 PM

Like many wired people, you probably take great pride in being a multitasker. You talk on your mobile phone, send e-mail, check the stock market online, and perhaps even read a letter and jot down notes for an upcoming meeting all at the same time (or so you think). Why do you multitask? Well, how else can you accomplish everything you need to get done (and still have time for a life!)? You believe you are the epitome of productivity and efficiency, getting so much done all at once.

There’s one problem with this scenario: there is no such thing as multitasking — at least not the way you may think of it. The fact is that multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the “technological-industrial complex” to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.

Understanding Multitasking

Multitasking involves engaging in two tasks simultaneously. But here’s the catch. It’s only possible if two conditions are met: 1) at least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., driving) and 2) they involve different types of brain processing. For example, you can read effectively while listening to classical music because reading comprehension and processing instrumental music engage different parts of the brain. However, your ability to retain information while reading and listening to music with lyrics declines significantly because both tasks activate the language center of the brain.

What does this mean for all of you self-proclaimed multitaskers out there? Well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it means that what you do isn’t really multitasking. Despite appearances, you simply can’t talk on the phone, read e-mail, send an instant message, and watch YouTube videos all at the same time. In fact, when you think you’re cruising along the information highway, you’re actually stepping on the gas then hitting the brakes, over and over.

Serial Tasking

You and every other so-called multitasker are actually serial tasking. Rather than engaging in simultaneous tasks, you are in fact shifting from one task to another to another in rapid succession. For example, you switch from your phone conversation to a document on your computer screen to an email and back again in the belief that you are doing them simultaneously. But you’re not.

Compelling Research

A summary of research examining multitasking on the American Psychological Association’s web site describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. These findings have demonstrated that when you shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which your brain must yank itself from the initial task and then glom onto the new task. This shift, though it feels instantaneous, takes time. In fact, up to 40 percent more time than single tasking – especially for complex tasks.

A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by three Stanford University researchers offers perhaps the most surprising result: those who consider themselves to be great multitaskers are in fact the worst multitaskers. Those who rated themselves as chronic multitaskers made more mistakes, could remember fewer items, and took longer to complete a variety of focusing tasks analogous to multitasking than those self-rated as infrequent multitaskers. In a recent interview with NPR, a co-author of the PNAS study, Clifford Nass, states, “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” Nass concluded that this difference appears to be due to an inability to filter past and no-longer-relevant information from the previous task.

A Grain of Salt

Despite the apparent persuasiveness of this research, I would approach Nass’s findings with a grain of salt. My concerns relate to what is called the “external validity” of research, in layperson’s terms, “the degree to which the conclusions in your study would hold for other persons in other places and at other times.” Like most university research, Nass’s studies used college undergraduates as experimental subjects. We might ask how representative college students are of the general population (and especially the population of technologists). Also, the tasks that they engaged in were not real-life activities but rather analog tasks that purport to test the same attributes as multitasking. Again, we might ask whether those contrived tasks are predictive of behavior in the real world. Even Nass notes in that PNAS article that, “It remains possible that future tests of higher-order cognition will uncover benefits…of heavy media multitasking…”

I should note that other research described in a Wired article involving normal activities has reported, for example, that children perform worse on their homework if it is done while watching TV and employees show greater productivity when they don’t check their email frequently. So there is considerable evidence against multitasking outside of the laboratory as well.

My consulting work with leading technologists, businesspeople, athletes, and coaches offers further support to my belief that multitasking is just not the way to go. The goals of these top performers with whom I work are not just to be productive and efficient, but rather to be the very best in their fields and to push the envelope of what is possible. Even a 1% improvement in their performance or productivity can mean dramatic differences in output. And I have found that single tasking, meaning focusing only on those tasks that are absolutely essential to maximize performance, is an effective tool for making small, yet profound gains in productivity.

Though questions still exist and there is still a need for further study, the preponderance of evidence does suggest that multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. With all things considered, I believe there is enough evidence to support the notion that other approaches to task completion can be more effective and efficient than multitasking.

Where to Now

Have I convinced you that it’s time to stop (or at least reduce) your multitasking habits? If so, I’ll devote a subsequent post to offering you practical steps you can take to “single task” in order to become more productive and efficient.

cross posted at drjimtaylor.com

Jim Taylor, Ph.D. in psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. He blogs on education and technology for psychologytoday.com, huffingtonpost.com, sfgate.com, seattlepi.com, and other Web sites around the country, as well as on http://drjimtaylor.com/ blog/archives/education.
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